DR Congo + 2 more

Red Cross plans kick into action in response to cholera outbreaks

By Nooshin Erfani, International Federation

Plans enacted in 2006 have enabled Red Cross societies in Southern Africa to quickly respond to cholera outbreaks.

"For cholera, it is important to respond quickly" says Harun Joho the water and sanitation coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Southern Africa.

"Now, Red Cross societies are able to have the cholera kits and the water purification equipment on site in a much shorter time than before, and this can have a huge impact."

Cholera outbreaks have been reported in Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. In Mozambique, a deadly outbreak in Manica Province has claimed more than 70 lives since the beginning of November, stretching health infrastructure to its limits.

"We are dealing with a cholera outbreak and unfortunately it has spread widely," said Fernanda Teixeira, Secretary General of the Mozambique Red Cross.

In South Africa, the first cases of cholera were reported on 11 November at Musina. While the confirmed number of deaths remains low, hundreds of cases have been reported and there are great concerns that the outbreak could mimic the one in Mozambique.

"If it is not controlled we could have a major problem," said John Shiburi, the provincial manager of the South African Red Cross Society. "The rains could make it much worse; since many people are staying out in the open."

Explaining the effect of population movement on the spread of the disease Farid Abdulkadir, the IFRC's Southern African disaster management coordinator, said "population movement has meant that we are dealing not with national situations, but with a regional one.

For instance, people are moving from the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where cholera has been reported, into the neighbouring countries of Zambia and Angola."

The IFRC has given coordinated responses from its disaster management, health and care and water and sanitation departments, providing assistance to the National Societies in affected countries, and using regional infrastructure and emergency stocks to speed up delivery of services. However, Red Cross societies and their volunteers remain at the fore-front of the operations.

Whilst pre-positioned stocks, and speed of delivery, are part of the contingency plans for cholera outbreaks in place since 2006 in seven countries within the zone, the plans mostly focus on prevention of further outbreaks, as well as supporting health care agencies.

"It is worrying that the outbreaks have started before the floods, since we normally see increased number of cholera cases in flooded areas. This is where the work of Red Cross volunteers is so vital," added Farid Abdulkadir.

"They will be in the communities, educating people about cholera: how to prevent it, and to know when to seek treatment. They are also trained in the use of the cholera kits, which takes some of the burden from the health authorities".

And the impact of volunteers is not just short-term: in 2006 and 2007, Angola experienced one of its worst ever cholera outbreak in history with an estimated 80,000 cases. The Angolan Red Cross trained more than 700 volunteers to carry out educational activities, and to mobilise the communities to undertake preventative measures.

"So far, in 2008, there have been far fewer outbreaks in Angola, and we believe that this is at least partly due to the activities of Red Cross volunteers," concluded Harun Joho. However, he warned that success should not mean complacency, and that prevention activities should be ongoing in order for them to be effective.